CAIRO: Egypt's interim president on Sunday made a rare visit to the pontiff of the nation's Orthodox Christians at St. Mark's Cathedral, the papal seat in central Cairo.
The highly symbolic visit to Pope Tawadros II by Adly Mansour came ahead of the Coptic Christmas, which falls on Tuesday.
Mansour was installed by the military on July 3 to replace Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, removed from office after just a year in which relations between the government and the country's Christians were fraught with tension and distrust.
"The visit is an expression of the appreciation of the Egyptian state of its Christian citizens who have offered a great deal while standing side by side with their Muslim brethren for the nation's glory," said presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi.
Also on Sunday, a court convicted two prominent activists and sentenced them to one-year suspended sentences for attacking the election headquarters of a former presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt's Christians account for some 10 percent of the nation's 90 million people. They are mostly members of the Orthodox church, one of Christendom's oldest. They long have complained of discrimination by the nation's Muslim majority.
Morsi, a longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, complained in a public speech just days before his ouster that leaders of the church came to see him wearing insincere smiles, and accused them of being unnecessarily afraid of Islamist rule. Morsi's Islamist allies adopted sectarian rhetoric and charged that Christians were key instigators of street protests against Morsi's rule.
For his part, Pope Tawadros had taken the unusual step of publicly criticizing the president, rejecting an Islamist-tilted constitution adopted in 2012 that, in his view, was discriminatory and compromised the human rights of Egyptians.
Tawadros, enthroned in late 2012, has publicly endorsed the coup.
In August, Morsi supporters destroyed, looted or burned dozens of churches and church-linked facilities across Egypt. Christian homes and businesses also were attacked. The wave of anti-Christian violence followed the breakup of two sit-in protests by Morsi supporters by security forces in an operation that killed hundreds.
In a separate development, a Cairo court on Sunday convicted prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, his sister Mona, and 10 others for their part in an attack against Shafiq's election headquarters in 2012. A court official said all 12 defendants received a suspended 12-month prison sentence. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Shafiq's election headquarters was torched in May 2012, in the run-up to the runoff vote between him and Morsi. Shafiq has since withdrawn the charges against the activists, but the Morsi-appointed chief prosecutor at the time referred the case to a criminal court last year.
The two siblings were leading figures in the protest movement that forced Mubarak to step down in 2011. Both have vigorously campaigned against military trials for civilians under the rule of the generals who took over from Mubarak. They supported the removal of Morsi but strongly disapprove of the military's return to politics and the harsh crackdown by authorities on the Brotherhood.
Abdel-Fattah, who was not present in Sunday's hearing, is in police custody over separate charges that he broke a recently adopted law that places stringent conditions on street protests.
Sunday's ruling follows last month's conviction and sentencing of three other prominent activists for breaking the same law. They were sentenced to three years in prison, but they are appealing the verdict.
Relations between the military-backed authorities and icons of the 2011 uprising have soured, with the activists accusing the pro-military media of trying to cast that revolution as a foreign-backed plot.